Cutting back on meat can help control global warming
Sierra Club's True Cost of Food Campaign
by Terry Jensen
Despite the assurance of Big Agribusiness that our food is the most affordable in history, the Sierra Club's True Cost of Food campaign exposes the hidden costs to our planet of our meat-rich, pesticide-laden, and transportation-heavy diet.
At the end of 2006, the United Nations released a report, Livestock's Long Shadow— Environmental Issues and Options. which had a stunning conclusion: "The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global." Raising animals for food is a primary cause of land degradation, air pollution, water shortage, water pollution, loss of biodiversity, and global warming.
The following are findings from the UN report:
Animal agriculture is responsible for 18% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions as measured in CO2 equivalents. By comparison, all transportation emits 13.5% of the CO2. In addition to CO2, environmentally toxic gases produced by livestock include nitrous oxide, methane, and ammonia generated from the animals' intestines-belching, flatus, and manure. The report says "The impact is so severe that it needs to be addressed with urgency."
• Produce 65% of human-related nitrous oxide, which has 296 times the Global Warming Potential of CO2.
• Account for 37% of all human-induced methane (which is 23 times as warming as CO2).
• Generate 64% of the ammonia, which contributes to acid rain and acidification of ecosystems.
Livestock's very presence in vast tracts of land and its demand for feed crops contribute to loss of other plants and animals. Livestock is identified as a culprit in 15 out of 24 important ecosystems that are assessed as in decline.
Livestock contribute to water pollution, excessive growth of organisms, depletion of oxygen, and the degeneration of coral reefs. The major water-polluting agents are animal wastes, antibiotics, hormones, tannery chemicals, fertilizers, and the pesticides used to spray feed crops.
In the United States livestock raising is responsible for 55% of the erosion and sediment, 37% of pesticide use, 50% of antibiotic use, and a third of the load of nitrogen and phosphorus put into freshwater sources. Widespread overgrazing disturbs water cycles, reducing replenishment of ground water resources. Significant amounts of water are withdrawn for the production of feed.
The total area occupied by grazing livestock is equivalent to 26% of the ice-free terrestrial surface of the planet. In addition, the total area dedicated to producing feed crops for these animals amounts to 33% of the total arable land.
Clearing forests to create new pastures is a major source of deforestation, especially in Latin America where some 70% of former rainforests in the Amazon have been turned over to grazing. Forests are the major "sinks" for removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
How to help
Three times a day we can help the planet by shifting our food choices towards more plant-based, organic, and locally-grown foods. By eating less meat we can help. The Club's True Cost of Food campaign wants you to know that your individual food choices definitely make a difference in planetary health, either positive or negative.
For more information visit www.sierraclub.org/sustainable_consumption and www.truecostoffood.org.
Terry Jensen is active in the Fort Worth Group, Texas and a member of the National Sustainable Consumption Committee.
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